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Death of student indicative of conflict

By FLORE DE PRENEUF

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 6, 2000


ARABEH, Israel -- With his die-hard optimism and winning smile, 17-year-old Asel Asleh didn't look like a tormented teenager. Both an Arab and an Israeli, he moved between the conflicting worlds with the ease of a talented, outgoing kid who was everybody's best friend.

But when Arabs started throwing stones at Israelis, and Israelis fired back with bullets, Asleh, a passionate peace activist, was jerked to one side, beaten and shot dead by Israeli police during a riot near his village, Arabeh, on Monday.

Ironically, Asleh was wearing the green T-shirt of Seeds of Peace -- a U.S.-sponsored youth organization that brings together Arabs and Jews -- at the time of his death.

To his Arab friends, Asleh was a hero, a martyr and a victim of Israeli racism and unchecked force. The day after his death, 30,000 people followed his body to the cemetery where he was buried wrapped in a Palestinian flag.

To his Jewish friends, Asleh's death raises dizzying questions they can't seem to put to rest. At the Jerusalem headquarters of Seeds of Peace, where poems, candles and pictures from summer camp in Maine and parties in Israel formed a makeshift shrine to Asleh, a handful of 17-year-old Jewish Seed of Peace graduates wrestled with their loss.

The official circumstances of his death are unexceptional. Police say Asleh was among hundreds of youngsters blocking a road who attacked police "with stones, bottles and even gunshots" in one of many demonstrations that turned violent Monday. Police say they had to shoot to protect themselves.

Asleh's family and eyewitnesses give a different account. According to them, the demonstration was a mostly peaceful one, a show of solidarity between Israeli Arabs, who live in Israel proper, and Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza against the brutality displayed by Israeli forces since a riot erupted at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque last week. They say police charged Asleh when he tried to rescue a friend fatally shot in the chest after stepping forward to throw a stone at a line of Israeli police. They say Asleh fell, was beaten severely and shot in the neck at close range with a rubber-coated bullet. The police then allegedly taunted other Arabs to come to Asleh's aid and meet the same fate. He died more than an hour and a half later in a nearby hospital after his ambulance was held up at a checkpoint.

Neither version of the story makes much sense to Asleh's Jewish friends. "If Asel was throwing stones, were his three years in Seeds for nothing?" asked Keren Klein.

"People use violence when they have given up hope of expressing themselves -- that was not Asel," said Dana Noar, recalling Asleh's gift for languages -- he spoke Arabic, Hebrew and English fluently -- and his habit of e-mailing friends he made at Seeds.

A "computer freak" who devoured books of philosophy and politics and was looking forward to college, Asleh was a model of ambition, not despair. He wanted to do something with his future, his friends are certain. He could have become a politician or an engineer -- "a leader in what he did," Noar said.

"I want to believe," reads a poster in his bedroom, and indeed, his optimism was contagious. Moran Eizenbaum remembers how Asleh helped her through rough times, when, after coming back from a Seeds of Peace summer camp, school mates called her an "Arab-lover." Asleh sent her comforting e-mails, called her and even invited her to his home for a festive meal.

As his Jewish friends sat reminiscing about Asleh, a troubling thought crept into their minds. What if the Israeli police had shot him for no reason?

At first Eizenbaum rejected the thought. "I love my country and I believe the soldiers are just trying to protect me," she said. "I don't think they shot him for no reason.

"On the other hand they killed Asel and I loved him. I can't believe he was a threat to the security of Israel."

While Eizenbaum and her friends sunk into a state of confusion, Bashar Iraqi, a 16-year-old Israeli Arab and friend of Asleh's who joined Seeds of Peace last summer, seemed to see things without doubt.

"Before, we knew (the Israeli Jews) had something against us, but we didn't know what. We finally saw it in these demonstrations," he said. "We're supposed to be Israeli citizens but they don't treat us that way. We would have been treated better if we were animals."

Like Asleh, Iraqi has had to navigate the shoals of a dual, conflicting identity. As part of Israel's 18 percent Arab minority, Iraqi goes to a school where classes are taught in Hebrew and carries an Israeli ID card. But by blood and tradition, he is a Palestinian Arab.

In Seeds of Peace, Asleh found the maturity and the desire to overcome this tension. In a letter published in the Olive Branch, the organization's newspaper, he wrote to a fellow Israeli Arab: "I can never take the word "Israel' off my passport, or the word "Arab,' which I feel proud of. We don't have to be caught; we can lead these two worlds, and still keep everything we had."

For Iraqi those hopes are now gone. "I still believe in peace," he reassured Eizenbaum as the two rode with a Seeds of Peace delegation to pay their respects to Asleh's family. But his pain is evident: "We live a lie called peace; we live in a lie called a democratic country. They say we're citizens of Israel so how could they do this to us?"

Like others, Iraqi was particularly upset by the level of force used to disperse demonstrators. The police could have used batons or water hoses instead of bullets, he said.

As the evening went on and Eizenbaum was exposed to the grief of Asleh's family, gathered with relatives and well-wishers under large canopies hung from the tallest branches of olive trees, Asleh's death began to sink in.

"It's so hard growing up in Israel," she said, emotionally exhausted after listening to repeated descriptions of Asleh's bruises, wounds and likely cause of death.

"I was brought up to believe the army does good. My father served 30 years in the army. I already have my draft date," said Eizenbaum, whose compulsory military service starts next fall. "I can't imagine myself part of that now."

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